When Toronto Blue Jays super utility man Cavan Biggio steps into the batter’s box on Tuesday, he’ll be leading off for a team with a 98.1 percent chance of making the playoffs.
The club stands above the New York Yankees in the AL East, and has a winning percentage (.565) that would rank sixth in the Blue Jays’ 44-year franchise history if it holds up.
At the beginning of this year, predicting Toronto would be in this situation on Sept. 15 would’ve seemed absurd. Even a true hot take artist would’ve left a forecast like that on the shelf for fear of looking colossally ill-informed.
Yet here we are, 14 games from the finish line, and the Blue Jays are playing meaningful September baseball that’s been so illusive in recent years. If you hadn’t been watching the season to this point there would be two obvious explanations.
The most obvious is that they’ve fluked their way into this spot thanks to a small-sample-size season that’s just 60 games long. Even though they’re 13-9 in one-run games, it would be hard to make that case. The Blue Jays are above league averages in terms of both offence and pitching, plus they’ve suffered more than their share of injuries to crucial contributors. It would be unfair to call this luck.
The second would be that their young trio of Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette have taken off. That’s not the case, either. Biggio has matched his rookie production almost exactly, Guerrero Jr. has been worse, and Bichette has played just 16 games due to injury.
So, what is it, then?
The Blue Jays are sitting pretty thanks to three factors unique to the unprecedented 2020 season:
The expanded playoff format
This could either be the biggest reason the Blue Jays make it, or a moot point. As it stands entering Tuesday’s action, the club holds the second wild-card spot under the old 10-team playoff format. However, it’s a position they have a tenuous grasp on, as both the Yankees and Cleveland Indians are 0.5 games back.
When it’s all said and done, it would be far from shocking to see them fall behind either of those teams, putting them in a position where the league’s decision to expand the playoff field to 16 is responsible for their postseason berth.
The addition of more spots also radically improved the Blue Jays’ playoff odds throughout the season, emboldening them to add players on expiring contracts at the deadline like starters Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker as well as middle infielder Jonathan Villar. If they were in a dead heat to make the playoffs with clubs as talented as the Indians and Yankees, the Blue Jays almost certainly wouldn’t have traded away prospects in win-now moves.
The 28-man roster
Another unusual feature of the 2020 season that’s played into the club’s unexpected success is the expanded roster. While some teams have used their extra flexibility to build deep benches and create matchup-tailored lineups, the Blue Jays have gone all-in on arms. Right now, they're carrying 15 pitchers on their active roster, leaving them with a typical four-man bench. That number has crept up to 16 at times, though, giving the club a massive 11-man bullpen.
Having an enormous bullpen has allowed the Blue Jays to be cautious with their starters — with the exception of ace Hyun-Jin Ryu — and avoid having them turn over opposing lineups three times. Avoiding the times-through-the-order penalty has been a great luxury for the Blue Jays to enjoy, especially because when they have let their starters face opposing hitters a third time this season those hitters have mashed a .330/.385/.600 line.
The Blue Jays bullpen has actually pitched more innings (209) than their rotation (198.2), which would be an impossible ratio to achieve for a traditional seven-reliever bullpen. Not only have their relievers provided quantity, the quality has been there too — especially in comparison to the starters.
If the team had their druthers, they’d probably be getting a little more bulk out of their starting five, but they’ve weathered the struggles that group has experienced thanks to their massive relief corps — a group that’s tied for the MLB lead in bullpen WAR (3.1).
In a typical season, this team would have pushed their starters deeper into games — despite their struggles — simply to soak up innings. They probably also would’ve leaned on a mop-up longman like Sam Gaviglio, who gave the team 95.2 replacement-level innings in 2019. That would’ve caused the Blue Jays to come undone in the middle innings of a number of games they’ve won this season thanks to a bullpen that can cover four or five innings a night without breaking a sweat.
A cancelled minor-league season
Speaking of that bullpen, one of the reasons it’s been so effective is that it contains a number of pitchers who aren’t supposed to be there. Under normal conditions, guys like Thomas Hatch, Ryan Borucki, Anthony Kay and Julian Merryweather would be plying their trade as Triple-A starters.
The Blue Jays have always tried to develop their best young pitchers as starters for as long as possible, even with players like Sean Reid-Foley who seemed better suited for relief from the get-go. That makes sense because a starter is significantly more valuable to his team than a reliever, and it pays to have some MLB-ready starters waiting in the wings at Triple-A when injuries inevitably hit.
Because there’s no minor-league baseball for these guys to play, throwing them in the bullpen is the only way to get them any innings at all. That’s forced the Blue Jays into a win-now move they wouldn’t otherwise make, and it’s paid off. The quartet of Hatch, Borucki, Merryweather and Kay have all looked excellent in relief, combining for 58.1 innings of 3.39 ERA ball.
Hatch is clearing a 95 mph average on his heater with 96th percentile spin. Borucki has gained close to 3 mph on his fastball, which has turned him from a groundball-inducing finesse guy into a bat-missing power arm. Kay has a slight boost on his fastball and improvement on his curveball’s spin and movement. Merryweather’s raw stuff is the best on the team, and he’s been a shutdown force in multi-inning stints.
Without those guys, the Blue Jays bullpen wouldn’t be the same intimidating group — and without an elite relief group, this club is looking at a very different 2020 season.
More MLB coverage from Yahoo Sports